It’s reading challenge time again! This time I’ll be sharing my thoughts on #89, The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. This a relatively modern novel, as it was published in 1991. It is also a romance novel, a type of fiction I probably have not willingly read since around 1991. I had plenty of warning. It’s right there in the description on Amazon that this is a time travel romance novel. I’m not sure why I was surprised that it ended up being exactly that. I guess deep down I am still an optimist.
TW: discussion of abuse, torture, sexual assault
This novel follows Claire, an English nurse who is on a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands with her husband Frank in 1945. They’re rediscovering each other after being separated by the war. After a few days of exploring the highlands, Claire and Frank discover a group of the local women holding a mysterious ceremony in a ring of standing stones. Shortly after, Claire touches one of the stones and is magically transported back to what we eventually learn is the year 1743. Once there, she immediately becomes mired in the conflict between a local clan and the British. Specifically, British captain “Black Jack” Randall, who happens to be her husband Frank’s ancestor. And of course, because this is a romance novel, she falls in love with one of the clansmen, Jamie Fraser.
I don’t even really know where to begin in my assessment of this book. I guess I should be open up front and say that, as I suggested above, it has been a long time since I read a romance novel. I think if I chose to read one on my own now, I’d want it to have much more romance and much less torture, rape, and abuse. I’d also like the characters to make more sense. I suppose this is why I like to read light sci-fi and fantasy that sometimes happens to have romance in it, rather than books that make fun sexy times the main attraction. That said, the prose in this work is fairly good, it’s the content that turns me right off.
Claire gets sexually assaulted by Captain Randall almost immediately upon being transported into the past. Her would-be saviors don’t treat her much better, and the first half of the book is an anxiety-ridden whirlwind of wondering whether all the unwanted sexual attention will eventually lead to rape. Thankfully it doesn’t. At least not until the point at which she is forced to marry. There’s a
pretext plot point where Randall orders that she be turned in for questioning, and the only way to avoid this is for her to be legally a member of the clan. So she has the choice to marry one of the two eligible bachelors that are traveling with their group, the strong, handsome, etc. Jamie or Some Other Guy (TM). I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I consider being coerced into marring someone and forced to consummate the marriage is rape, but of course this being a romance novel it turns out that they have amazing sexual chemistry and there are all the requisite fireworks and hearts. Did I mention that mr. 20-something virile highlander man was a virgin? But somehow everything was still amazing and perfect? I think that’s the point where my eyes rolled right out of my head and I lost the ability to take this book seriously anymore. A+ marks for pandering to your presumed readership base I guess?
Anyway Claire spends the entire first half of the book looking for chances to escape from whoever happens to be capturing her at the time in order to get back to the standing stones and try to return to her own time. She even gets a beating from her husband as a result of one such attempt. Perhaps because the author specifically sought to make me vomit in my own mouth, of course Claire struggles against the beating but eventually comes to understand how it was the good and just and necessary thing. Please excuse the retching noises I’m making, I’m sure it will pass eventually. Eventually she ends up telling Jamie the truth about where and when she is from, and they return to the standing stones. Again I must really be an optimist because somehow I was hoping she’d return back to her own time or maybe bounce back and forth to carry out the time-traveling affair with Jamie but no. When she got her chance to go home to indoor plumbing and modern medicine and a non-abusive husband, of course she chose to stay in the 1700s.
Now is the part where I admit another place I was wrong. Because this book had time travel nonsense happening, I guessed that in the end Claire would get raped by Captain Randall and end up being her future husband’s great-great-whatever grandmother. It seemed like the sort of nonsense thing that would be likely in this kind of story. Fortunately we were spared that. Unfortunately, what actually happened was also completely awful. Because it turns out our big bad villain is actually gay or bi, and has the hots for Jamie. In a heroic gesture Jamie sacrifices himself, letting Randall have sex with and tourture him in exchange for letting Claire escape. Please imagine that I’ve written a 3 page diatribe about how awful it is to equate gay sex with evil and torture. I am still actually too angry to write coherent words about it here.
There’s some other awful nonsense after that horrific climax, including a mind-boggling scene in which Claire attempts to save Jamie’s life by literally drugging him and forcing him to relive his rape and torture. I don’t even know how that was supposed to work, but of course by the end they’re having magical sex in the middle of a french monastery because romance novel I guess. Somewhere in there are also hints about what the hell is up with the magical time-travel enabling standing stones. Claire befriends a witch who seems to have some knowledge of this, but she literally ends up being burned to death for being a witch before she can explain anything. Claire finds out she was from the future of her own future (1960s to Claire’s 1945, I believe). Nothing else ever comes of that. There’s also a scene near the beginning of the book where a strange ghostly man was staring at Claire in the window which I naively assumed meant there would be multiple time travel shenanigans but that was left completely unexplained. While I’m slightly curious whether any of the time-travel questions get answered in subsequent books, there’s no way in hell I will force myself to read more in this series to find out.
As romance novels go I’m sure this one is just fine, as long as you don’t mind the sexual assault. There’s slightly more than the barest pretense at a reason for the protagonists to fuck. Of course there is a lot of abuse and blood and sickness and lack of agency in between those steamy sex scenes, so that might make it less than stellar after all. It certainly got enough people to like it to warrant being made into a tv series though. When I look at this book objectively I can appreciate its spot on the list. In a genre dominated by men it is refreshing to see a novel by a woman and aimed squarely at other women gaining support and acclaim. However I do not like romance novels, and I do mind sexual assault and regular assault, and the way this book equates “gay” and “evil”, and the lack of payoff on the whole time-travel front.
I can’t help but compare this to the Doomsday Book, another time travel novel ranked lower than this one on the challenge list. The Doomsday Book gave me characters and story that I cared deeply about, and the time travel was explained reasonably well and was more than just an excuse for the protagonist to go back in time to have sex with Scottish clansmen. I cried real tears at the end of the Doomsday book, while I nearly cried tears of joy just because this one was over and I never have to think of it again. If you want a time travel novel please do yourself a favor and read The Doomsday Book.
TL;DR: Unsatisfying time travel by means of magic and with no resolution. It is a romance novel and meaningful character motivation is secondary to excuses for sexytimes. Full of sex but also various kinds of abuse and assault. I hated it.
The Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon
Rating: 2/5 stars
Verdict: It was very much not my thing at all, but I can sort-of understand why so many people liked it. For the love of all that is good please read The Doomsday Book instead.
Next up: Something I’ve been looking forward to: The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn!